Amendment 122

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords am 4:40 pm ar 13 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Baroness Thornton:

Moved by Baroness Thornton

122: After Clause 28, insert the following new clause—“Code for victims of major incidents(1) The Secretary of State must issue a code of practice as to the services to be provided to victims of major incidents by persons having functions relating to—(a) victims of major incidents, or(b) official inquiries and investigations following a major incident.(2) In this Part, the “code for victims of major incidents” means the code of practice issued under this section.(3) The code for victims of major incidents must make provision for services which reflect the principles that victims should—(a) be provided with information to help them understand the investigatory process following the major incident of which they are a victim;(b) be able to access services which support them (including, where appropriate, specialist services);(c) have the opportunity to make their views heard in the investigatory process following the major incident of which they are a victim;(d) be able to challenge decisions which have a direct impact on them.(7) The code for victims of major incidents may make different provision for different purposes, including different provision for—(a) victims of different descriptions;(b) persons who have different functions of a kind mentioned in subsection (1).”

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, in moving Amendment 122, I shall also speak to Amendment 123. I thank Justice and Inquest for the briefings they have given us about this issue. I hope the noble and learned Lord the Minister will be back with us at some point as the Bill proceeds, although the duo who have taken his place are doing a great job.

These amendments follow on from our debate at the end of the proceedings last week about victims of major incidents and how they should be treated. The amendments are about the fact that bereaved people and survivors in inquests and inquiries will have suffered serious harm but do not receive the same recognition from the Government as victims of crime, so are not entitled to the minimum level of support and services. Instead they are often expected to navigate complex legal processes, with little recognition of the harm they have suffered or the trauma they have faced.

Under Clause 2, the victims’ code in the criminal justice context would reflect the principles that victims

“(a) should be provided with information … (b) should be able to access services which support them … (c) should have the opportunity to make their views heard … (d) should be able to challenge decisions which have a direct impact on them”.

Applying these principles to the victims of major incidents and interested persons at inquests would have a significant, practical and symbolic benefit, consistent with the Government’s pledge to place victims at the heart of their response to public tragedies.

Extending the provisions of the victims’ code could be achieved by introducing a requirement in the Bill for the Secretary of State to issue a separate victims’ code relating specifically to victims in the context of inquests and inquiries. Such a code could be guided by the same principles and have the same weight and legal status as its criminal justice counterpart. Before drafting the code, the Secretary of State should be required to consult the survivors of major incidents and the bereaved. Further consultations should be required before any changes were made to the victims’ code or its provisions relating to victims in the inquests and inquiries context.

The Government could be invited to suggest their own way of achieving the proper support for victims of major incidents. These are probing amendments about the best way forward, and this may not be it. Inquest contends that

“affording victims of major incidents and Interested Persons entitlements under the Victims Code would represent a recognition of their status as victims of significant, and often wrongful, harm who should be treated in a manner that is dignified and promotes participation”.

I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for tabling these important amendments creating a code for victims of major incidents and the processes by which it should be laid before Parliament. At Second Reading, a number of noble Lords raised the problem in the Bill that faces victims who are not victims of a type of crime listed in Schedule 1 and relating only to the first part of the Bill. It is self-evident that the victims of major incidents are not all covered by crime, or sometimes criminality may not be evident for a long period after the incident. However, the consequences of these incidents are often life-changing and require the same sort of support that victims of serious crimes do.

It would be iniquitous if the victims of aircraft accidents, flooding disasters, stadium collapses and many others were not able to access the support of the relevant services via an advocate and agencies that they need. That is why amendments debated last week, as well as those today, make strong arguments for provision. The advocates also need to know what rights these victims have in major non-criminal incidents and which services to refer them to.

The Government announced nearly a year ago that they would provide better support for bereaved families and eyewitnesses of homicide and major incidents, and specifically quoted the Manchester bombings as an example. In the statement, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk KC, said:

“The Homicide Service provides vital support to the families of victims under the worst of circumstances—ensuring they have the emotional and practical help they need to cope with their loss … By expanding the service to include eyewitnesses and bereaved families of major incidents across England and Wales thousands more people will be able to access the support they need as early as possible”.

Further on in the announcement, Edward Argar MP, then victims Minister, specified:

“This expansion of the Homicide Service, and additional new funding, will help ensure that more people bereaved through homicides and major criminal incidents across England and Wales, and eyewitnesses to those events, know they have somewhere to turn for help, where they can get the support they need”.

I commend the Government for that announcement.

However, victims and families of the Hillsborough tragedy, the Grenfell Tower fire and the Shoreham air disaster, for example, would not come under the enhanced service and would find it distressingly difficult to navigate in the days, months and years after the incident. Will the Minister say why the decision was taken to exclude those victims of major incidents that were not very serious criminal incidents, not obviously criminal incidents or definitely not criminal incidents under the rights of the victims’ code? I support both amendments.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 4:45, 13 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, there is obvious scope for confusion on the part of—I try not to use the word “victim”, because I do not want to cause confusion—people who are caught up in incidents which may or may not be criminal. We could be in danger of causing resentment among people who are caught up in non-criminal incidents because what is available to them is insufficient. That is thrown into clarity when looked at against the victims’ code. The legislation needs something like the amendment and clarity on the part of everyone who is operating as to what applies. Points were made throughout many of the previous debate about the need for signposting, and I see that very much in the context which the noble Baronesses have referred to.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, I support both amendments. I shall refer to a different group; the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, mentioned several incidents that would cause the amendments to kick in. However, there is another category, and that is victims of state wrongdoing. For example, the “spy cops” scandal shows what goes wrong when a police unit goes rogue and the state compounds the abuse of power by doing all it can to minimise and cover up. Those cover-ups leave victims powerless and alone and are the reason we need this victims’ code to apply to them as well.

There are famous cases such as Hillsborough and the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes. There is also a long history of Met police officers—those of us who were on the London Assembly or the London police authorities saw this many times—being accused of crimes and allowed quietly to retire early.

There is the emerging scandal of sexual and domestic abuse being systematically ignored within the police service when the accusations are directed at police officers by women who are their partners or even fellow officers. We heard this week of examples in Devon, with officers accused but still promoted to units specialising in domestic violence. These are not one-offs or rotten apples; this is a systemic failure to protect women and ensure that they get justice. The victims’ code would help to redress that.

Many such victims have to crowdfund if they are to have any hope of engaging with the legal process to find justice. I have worked with many victims seeking justice through inquests and public inquiries, and it is a very disorienting process for them. I very much hope that these two amendments will encompass that group: those who are victims of state wrongdoing.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, these are probing amendments, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, explained, and they would substantially increase the range of the Bill in relation to major incidents. That is all to the good. Part 1 of the Bill, as we know, is concerned with victims of criminal conduct and, because of the provisions concerning the new code, is relatively comprehensive. However, Part 2, in connection with victims of major incidents, is not.

Part 2 as presently drafted is concerned entirely with advocates for victims of major incidents. The introduction of the scheme for the appointment of standing advocates and other advocates is a welcome reform, but there are many other areas where victims of major incidents need more support than they currently receive. My noble friend Lady Brinton gave a number of examples. We heard of a further example last Wednesday: the argument about permitting victims’ relatives to register the death of those victims. That is an important issue—one which has received far too little attention before—but is only one of a very large number of issues facing victims of incidents that the Bill simply does not cover.

There are issues concerning the operation and impact of the coronial system more generally, for example, or the availability, establishment, conduct and reporting of public inquiries, as well as representation at those inquiries. There is also the implementation of recommendations of inquiries and investigations, and the monitoring of that implementation; the provision of information to victims and their families; the provision of practical and financial support to victims after major incidents; comprehensive signposting, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Hamwee; and ensuring that at times of disaster there is a dedicated support system available to victims and their families.

Much of this has been called for by Victim Support and others over some years. The Government’s response has been helpful in providing for local resilience forums. These work well in some areas, but the evidence we have seen shows that they work far less well in others. Victim Support and other charities of course do a great deal to co-ordinate and supply support services, but they are charities and limited by funding restraints in what they can do.

Victim Support recommended in 2020 that local resilience forums should be under a duty to produce civil contingency plans to a minimum standard. I suggest that a new, separate code for victims of major incidents would be a sensible and practical way to achieve a number of worthwhile ends. Primarily, it would set out the services and responses that victims of major incidents would be entitled to expect from public authorities and others. Secondly, it would give victims comprehensive information on how to access the services they need. Thirdly, it would enable local resilience forums to understand what services they needed to provide and so ensure more comparability across the piece. Fourthly, it would establish a standard of good practice, to enable local resilience forums and all responders to know what is needed and expected. A feature of the code I would applaud is that it could be regularly updated to reflect best practice to ensure that unnecessary shortcomings in some areas could be addressed.

These are, as we have said, probing amendments and it is not for now to attempt to draft what should go into such a code. What is needed is a commitment to devote resources to drafting such a code, thinking carefully about it and to consulting on what is needed, with a view to such a code being ultimately incorporated in statute in the same way as we seek to incorporate the victims’ code in this Bill.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for Amendment 122. This amendment would require the Secretary of State to prepare and issue a new code of practice for victims of major incidents. I will focus my response on the content of Amendment 122, as Amendment 123 is consequential on the former. While I understand the intentions of the amendments, I do not believe they are necessary, because existing codes and related commitments are already in place to achieve their aims.

First, the purpose of establishing an independent public advocate is exactly as the noble Baroness has outlined. It is to ensure that victims understand the processes and actions of public authorities and how their views may be taken into account; to provide information concerning other sources of support and advice; and to communicate with public authorities on behalf of victims in relation to the incident, especially in situations where the victims have raised concerns. Through the advocate’s ability to act as a conduit between victims and the Government, victims will have the opportunity to make their views known and have their voices heard to effect change in real time.

Secondly, it is likely that in most circumstances in which a major incident is declared and an advocate is appointed the victims will have been a victim of a crime. In such instances, they are already covered under the victims’ code, which sets out the services and support that victims of crime can expect to receive from criminal justice agencies. An additional code for victims of a major incident may therefore be duplicative, and as such may be counterproductive.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton, Lady Brinton, Lady Hamwee and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, have argued powerfully that non-criminal major incidents may need to be addressed. Victims of non-criminal major incidents will have an advocate appointed to help them access support services, navigate the processes—

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I wonder whether the code would cover the Hillsborough situation. It seems that the definition the noble Lord has just given would not cover that situation—one in which people may think that a crime was committed but nobody has ever been charged with a crime, and there were definitely a very large number of victims.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. The other point he has raised about the type of—if I can call it this— “victimhood” completely ignores the experience of the victim, the journey they have to make, and the services, which are so vital to the victims’ code. How can he explain that victims of major incidents that are not deemed to be a crime at the time would be able access those services in the same way? They are no less victims.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I understand the points made by both noble Baronesses. I have had extensive dialogue with the department on this point today and I will try to give the best answers I can. We can follow up further beyond that.

As cases of non-criminal major incidents do not go through the criminal justice system, the measures in the Bill and code are not appropriate for this cohort. If a major incident subsequently becomes criminal, victims will be entitled to services under the code. The majority of measures under the code help those going through the criminal justice system, so would not be appropriate for those who are not.

In relation to support services under the code and broadening access, expanding these to those incidents where no crime has been committed could impact access to support services designed for victims of crime, but that does not prevent separate provision designed to meet the needs of those who have experienced a major incident.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

I am really sorry to intervene again and am very grateful to the noble Lord. The amendment does not say that it is the same victims’ code as under Part 1 of the Bill; this is a different victims’ code. Can he explain to your Lordships’ Committee why a separate code, often with references to different services and agencies, would impact on the other one?

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 5:00, 13 Chwefror 2024

As I have already said, I believe that most victims will be victims of crime; most major incidents will involve criminal behaviour of some description, or a criminal investigation. We believe it is a subset, but nevertheless a very important subset, of victims who need to have their needs addressed. We completely agree with that.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

The Minister has accepted that there is a subset and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has demonstrated, it is a very important subset of victims who are not victims of crime but of tragic accidents or incidents. I am not sure that his answers so far and his speech so far have taken in the real difference, which is that victims of crime are involved in process that leads to—and is at least partially resolved by—a criminal trial, where there is to be such a trial, or a criminal investigation where it does not lead to a trial.

The Minister has accepted that the existing victims’ code is directed to that set of circumstances. Victims of a tragedy that is a major incident which does not involve crime—or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, pointed out, may or may not involve crime but does not lead to a criminal process—have a whole different set of needs that arise from tragedy rather than crime. I cannot understand from the Minister’s answers why a separate victims’ code is inappropriate in those circumstances. There may, of course, be areas of overlap but why is there no separate code to deal with this very real issue?

The additional point is that I would suggest—and the Minister has not suggested otherwise—that all of this cannot be addressed simply by the provision of an independent public advocate, however worthy that is, and it is.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

While the Minister is still sitting down, I agree with everything that has just been said but also the victims I was talking about—the victims of state wrongdoing—have not been treated as victims of crime so they would come under the original code, except they have not had access to all the information, and so on. It is worth understanding that the current code is not enough. Plus, I am “Jones of Moulsecoomb”, not “Jones of Whitchurch”—no offence.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marks, for a much more eloquent summing up of what I was trying to say than I was capable of doing.

The Government acknowledge that there is a subset of victims of major incidents where a crime does not occur who are not being addressed because the victims’ code addresses principally the victims of major incidents where crime does occur. The Government believe that the independent public advocate will be a significant step forward in helping all victims of major incidents to have their needs met during this very difficult time.

The Government’s view is that the charter and the proposed code for victims of major incidents bear many similarities and it may be duplicative to implement both. The Government are also not convinced at this time of the necessity of placing these codes and charters which aim to change culture on a statutory footing, but we are happy to consult all Ministers, given the strength of feeling about how best to address the needs of victims of major incidents where crime is not involved. As I say, we have had dialogue today on exactly this matter and I am conscious that I am not giving noble Lords a very good answer but I think it is best if we agree to consult on that, if that is acceptable.

In answer to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, about cases where the victims’ code is not followed and where, potentially, victims are victims of state actions or some other incident, the victims can direct complaints to the organisation itself. It will have internal complaints-handling processes in place; I accept that in this particular instance that may not be much use. But if they feel that their complaint has not been resolved, they can escalate it to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, who will investigate further.

Through the Bill, we are making it easier for complaints to go to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman where the complaint relates to the complainant’s experience as a victim of crime. It may also be open to victims to challenge a failure to deliver the entitlement set out in the code by way of judicial review. This will depend on the circumstances and standard public law principles will apply. As the most senior governance—

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

I apologise for intervening again, but this is Committee and I am trying to understand. I am grateful to the Minister for outlining possible alternative routes, but he is suggesting two, three or four possible routes that a victim of a major incident, who may never have had any encounter with any of the services and agencies, has to know and understand. It is very complex. Is the Minister happy to meet between Committee and Report to discuss this? I do not want to detain the Committee with a couple of possible examples, but, thinking about other major incidents, I already have examples I would like to put to the Minister and his officials to try to understand how the system he is proposing would work. At the moment, it seems more of a muddle than the current system.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am of course happy to commit to meeting to discuss this matter, but we are not leaving the victims defenceless in this situation: they will have an independent public advocate, who will help to guide them through all these processes. But I completely agree that we should meet and consult further on this matter.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, during the debate on the victims’ code, we discussed the problem that victims are often advised not to undergo any counselling or therapy because that might damage how their evidence is characterised by the defendant’s counsel. I have no idea whether this issue has arisen in connection with major, possibly non-criminal incidents, but I can see that this could become something that makes its way into people’s thinking: “Don’t go for therapy because you might have to give evidence to a public inquiry, and how would that be perceived?” I just throw that in as another consideration. There may be similar points, not about what victims should do but about things they should not.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for throwing that in. The Minister will know that this is a discursive process and this is a probing amendment. Although we will press him on all the different things, I am grateful for the commitment to talk and to continue the dialogue about how we deal with this particular group in the code. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 122 withdrawn.

Amendment 123 not moved.

Clause 29: Appointment of standing advocate